Students join in on interactive TV

Shows hosted by a University alumnus engage students in live karaoke and Scrabble.

Mike Enright

The performers were still getting into costume when the phone first rang with the next would-be karaoke superstar on the line.

“It usually doesn’t start ringing until five (minutes) to,” said dancer Amber McGough as she put on a sparkling gold dress and white feather boa Sunday Feb. 25. “People must not like the Oscars.”

The show is “Call-In Karaoke” and airs live Sundays, sans commercials, from 10-11 p.m. on Minneapolis Television Network’s channel 17.

Debuting roughly two years ago, it is the second of two interactive programs hosted by 26-year-old Hamil Griffin-Cassidy, a part-time production specialist at MTN and former University student.

Griffin-Cassidy also produces “Totally Scrabble Tuesday,” which runs commercial-free from 11 p.m. to midnight.

The show pits Griffin-Cassidy against the city of Minneapolis. Viewers make up one collective team with its own set of tiles and call in with word suggestions based on the team’s letters.

Those who make it through – the studio only has one phone line – get put on air to spell their word, though many often do more, giving their opinions on life, telling dirty jokes or simply giving shout-outs to friends during their 15 seconds of fame.

“The best thing about it is the improvisation,” Griffin-Cassidy said. “Anything can happen. You can’t screw it up.”

Since their inceptions, both shows have continued to grow in popularity, especially with students, creating almost cult-like followings complete with Web sites and MySpace profiles.

John Purdy, a University alumnus, has become a regular watcher and sometimes a participant.

“It’s just weird creativity that you’re not going to see at nine o’clock on Fox,” said Purdy, who graduated from the University last spring.

More a fan of “Call-In Karaoke,” Purdy said since stumbling across the show randomly one evening, he and his friends have tried to make it a weekly routine to get together, have some drinks and watch the show, sometimes calling in themselves.

“Sitting at home with your friends, you can hold the phone a couple of feet in front of you and everyone can belt out the words,” he said. “And this has the added bonus of complete strangers dancing for you.”

In addition to Griffin-Cassidy, these dancing strangers include his girlfriend Jill Pridemore, Matt Berg and McGough.

Purdy’s girlfriend, Maura DiSalvo, a University political science and history junior, said she doesn’t call in and sing but enjoys listening to the people who do.

“It’s really funny to watch because the people calling in, they sound ridiculous most of the time,” she said. “I think a lot of the people who call in are really drunk too, so they don’t even realize they sound horrible.”

University genetics, cell biology and development senior Dave Somsen, on the other hand, said he is all about Scrabble, which he has been on half a dozen times since finding out about it at the beginning of the semester.

“It’s a good reason for a bunch of friends to get together and hang out,” he said. “You kind of feel like you’re representing your city.”

Graham Lampa, a University public policy graduate student, became so engrossed he built a Web site for the sole purpose of beating Griffin-Cassidy, who often outscores Team Minneapolis.

“I’m not really all that into Scrabble or all that good at Scrabble, but I am into competition,” he said. “At first I wanted to go with beathamil.net, but I decided to go with defeathamil.net because it’s worth more points in Scrabble because it’s a longer word.”

Lampa said he developed the site last December.

“In order to procrastinate enough during finals week, I gave myself another project to work on,” he said. “For some reason I thought that would be a good idea.”

what to watch

Call-in Karaoke
When: 10 to 11 p.m. Sundays

Totally Scrabble Tuesday
When: 11 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays

Where: Channel 17
Call in: (612) 331-8578
For more information go to the Minneapolis Television Network Web site: www.mtn.org/index.html

Griffin-Cassidy attributed the shows’ success to the way they create a sense of community.

“That’s what’s so nice about cable access, is that anybody can do it,” he said. “It’s homemade; it still has that construction paper vibe.”

Oddly enough, creators never meant to do either show on a regular basis, Griffin-Cassidy said.

But when Scrabble first debuted on Jan. 7, 2004, a person called in and told them they had to do it again, Griffin-Cassidy said.

So they did.

Both shows were the ideas of former MTN program manager Martin Hallanger, Griffin-Cassidy said.

“It just worked out to stick me out there,” he said.

But if it weren’t for Griffin-Cassidy, the shows probably wouldn’t be as popular as they are, DiSalvo said.

“Hamil’s really funny,” she said. “If he wasn’t hosting it, I don’t know if it would be as fun to watch.”